I’ll Be Your Mirror: Performance and Identity in French New Wave
by Angie Hoover
Cleo descends the dark spiral staircase as she contemplates her dwindling health. She peers out of a foggy, barred window, confined by the weight of death and cancer. Again and again, the image of her pretty face appears like a looping phrase on a snagged record: she is a fragmented woman built on hollow ground. She approaches a mirror and smiles, delighted by her own reflection: “Wait pretty butterfly. As long as you are beautiful, you are more alive than the rest of them,” she thinks.
Cleo, the main character of Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, looks to her appearance to assert her identity. She is both the product of and response to an era dominated by celebrity culture: infatuated with her own carefully contrived persona, but desperately craving authenticity. Her dilemma is complex, but not necessarily unique. In the late 1950s, Hollywood films injected archetypes into Western culture that were almost immediately revered and imitated, infusing an element of performance with modern identity. The pervasive force that is American Cinema– filled with vamps, tramps, and wise guys, told audiences how to be likable, how to be interesting, and how to be important, and they listened. Selfhood then became a complex marriage between acting and being, one which is explored in depth by Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 and Godard’s Breathless. Through content and form, these films take a new artistic approach and provoke contemplation about the cultivation of the Self in an era where people attempted to understand and affirm their identities through appearance.
The American Influence and the Birth of New Wave
The pioneers of the French New Wave movement were heavily influenced by American Cinema and paid homage to Hollywood both directly and subtly within their films. Breathless is one of the clearest examples of this, chronicling the love affair between a Humphrey Bogart-Wannabe and his American girlfriend, Patricia. At one point in the film, the main character, Michel, visits a movie theater and casually jokes with a movie poster featuring Bogart’s harsh but handsome stare. This is Godard’s nod to the crime dramas of the 1940s. Similarly, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows shows the young Antoine escaping the harshness of everyday life in a movie theater, a practice which Truffaut claims, taught him how to make good films.
The French movie-going population grew rapidly during the German Occupation, and continued to flourish during France’s reconstruction and modernization. During the second half of the 1950s, the popular audience rejected french films in favor of american blockbusters (in particular detective films and B-movies) and the film critics of the time, including Andre Bazin, Jean Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, praised the more stylized work of american directors like Welles and Hitchcock. In the same breath, these critics condemned the “old style” of french cinema for its banal, hackneyed approach, and in an effort to revitalize filmmaking, they began directing their own films.
The onslaught of innovative films that resulted are considered the “new wave” of french filmmaking. Unlike the literary adaptations, and extraneous period pieces of pre-war France, French New Wave films addressed relevant social issues, as well as issues of existentialism, individualism, and the human experience. Both content and technique were manipulated to force contemplation about memory, time, and identity.
American Idols and Public Persona
Facades and personas are common areas of interest in French New Wave, which often dissects the process of personal transformation and the cultivation of Self. The implication in these films is that personality is no longer a thing that is discovered, but rather a thing that is created, resulting in a deep sense of narcissism and self-consciousness. Both Godard’s Michel and Varda’s Cleo obsessively interact with their own reflections as they attempt to build their personalities. Through these exchanges, we see the strange relationship that is forged between persona and self. When Michel rehearses his movie star glare in a glass window or Cleo, catching her reflection in a hallway mirror, turns her chin upward ever so slightly to catch the perfect light, these films reveal the dichotomous nature of identity in the entertainment age. The self observes and critiques the effectiveness of the facade, and those natural behaviors which conflict with the crafted persona must be changed. Just as a ballet teacher urges her students to point their toes, or arch their feet to create a more uniform appearance, the self and the facade must be perfectly synchronized.
These interactions also function as a form of validation: reassurance that the self is still interesting, still beautiful, and that the persona is being upheld. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are ever present in the films of La Nouvelle Vague, serving as symbols of inescapable self-awareness. Always, these characters are watching themselves be watched. On a drive through the french countryside, Michel glances at his rearview mirror to make sure that he is capturing that hard, mysterious quality that Bogart has perfected. He stares ahead, an oversized black fedora casting a shadow over his brow and a lit cigarette dangling precariously from his bottom lip. Even on this solitary drive, he imagines that he is being admired. Later, in Patricia’s apartment, he leans against the sink and stares at himself. He traces his thumb over his lips and delivers his line: “ I always fall for girls who aren’t my type,” but he isn’t talking to Patricia; he is talking to himself— playing the role of the tough gangster. His criminal-facade is not only a tool that he uses to gain approval from others; it is who he has become. For Michel, like for Cleo, the facade has become the primary identity. It wields ultimate authority and like an overbearing parent, it must always be consulted for permission. In Breathless, Godard’s rough, personal style is instrumental in accentuating the nature of this interconnection. As Hoffman notes, his transitions from shot to shot contradict traditional editing rules, creating a “perceivable gap in time and space.” These missing frames make scenes jittery and disjointed, representing visually the perspectives of Michel, whose actions are fragmented and contrived.
This level of self-centeredness is emotionally debilitating: a narcissism that spurs introspection but dehumanizes others. Michel perceives his life in a cinematic context, and so a portion of his compassion is foregone for the sake of his performance. As he drives down a dirt road, he begins to play-shoot a silver pistol. The blinding sun shines through the window of his stolen car while a police car pursues him. He parks the car where the road meets the trees and steps out of the driver’s seat. Sliding his head into the car window, he reaches for a gun. In a flash, he shoots the policeman to the ground. Godard then cuts to a long shot of Michel fleeing the scene of the crime. The quick cuts, and lack of realistic violence imply that this moment does not have a lasting emotional impact on Michel; this murder is just another plot point in the epic crime drama that is his life. A natural event in the life of an outlaw. For Michel, empathy is secondary to enhancing his tough-guy persona, and decisions are made with the intention of further developing his image. His identity is, as Ebert argues, a “cool facade […] that functions to conceal his desperation”. This disregard for other people is paralleled, albeit subtly, in Varda’s Cleo, who coyly plays her own record during lunch at a diner. She dances and smirks graciously as if the patrons are her audience, without realizing that some are complaining about the noise. Through their careful studies, these directors hint at the delusion as well as the deep need for acceptance lurking beneath their conceit.
Where is the Line?
The Movement’s intense focus on personal experience is what allows viewers to empathize deeply with its characters and investigate issues of identity within themselves. Lingering close-ups are privileged over quicker shots that transition from person to person with the flow of action. In this way, moments between plot points are emphasized rather than omitted, allowing the spectator to observe minute changes in expression and mood that might be lost in more fast-paced films. In Cleo from 5 to 7, we follow Cleo as she waits for the results of a medical test. She visits an old fortune-teller, tries on a multitude of hats, and traipses through the city, stopping intermittently to admire herself in various mirrors and windows: where is that line? That line between the facade and the Self ? Can she see it, or is it hiding beneath her long black lashes, and her tiny, pointed nose? When she returns to her apartment, she sits on her flouncy bed, adorned with feathers and silk. All of the pieces in her apartment are exquisite, but disconnected. A swing stands alone in the center of the room. A dresser. A bed. A piano. Each object sits in its own area, separated from everything else as if to be beautiful is to be isolated. Her songwriters arrive and she joins them at the piano.
Varda slowly zooms into her face and the background melts into a blanket of deep black. Cleo begins to sing and the camera stays tight on her face. The playfulness in her eyes evaporates and we sense a growing sadness. Slowly, she slips out of her pretty but empty shell, and we can see her fears and her desperation leaking out with every tear that streams down her face. That line between the self and the facade is as bold and dark as the notes that she sings. Although Cleo remains unwise, the viewer can see that there is something deeper to her: a longing, an emptiness, a confusion. In this long take, we have learned to detect a nearly invisible hole in Cleo and in ourselves. This film, and others within the movement, transform abstractions like the dichotomy of identity into tangible things that can be observed and understood, making external what is internal for the viewer. Film-watching is then an experience of self-scrutiny and personal transformation.
How Does it End?
Both Cleo and Michel find different ends to their conflicts of identity, but their endings are shrouded in ambiguity. After a conversation with a young soldier, Cleo discovers that she has cancer, but is able to see herself as a part of the world rather than the shining star that it revolves around. Michel is gunned down as he runs through the streets of Paris, only to die uttering a cryptic phrase as Patricia stares down at him in confusion . The films themselves are more circular than linear, ending with puzzling scenes that send viewers back around to the beginning and through the film again like a carousel. Meaning is found throughout, in the detailed expressions of the characters and the innovative artistic methods which point to aspects of identity that cannot be conveyed through dialogue or plot. French New Wave Films often sought the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the human experience, but neglected to offer neat resolutions.
Because these characters are able to fashion themselves after archetypes ( e.g. the debonair outlaw or the beautiful pop star) , they believe that identity is something that begins externally and is funneled inward. What these films show so perfectly is how gradually the division between what we are and what we pretend to be dissipates, effecting a void that is difficult to recognize. Almost accidentally, the films of the French New Wave explore the internal conflict that arises when personas are so easily adopted and projected. When performance is an integral part of being, there is always the fear that the real self will slip through, causing a rift that could mean the loss of acceptance and possibly the loss of self-understanding. Because the New Wave directors forced existential issues into film during a time when the meaning of identity was transforming into something part real and part artificial, they attuned viewers to an emptiness that was felt but not yet intellectualized.
The integration of more individualistic and innovative filmmaking techniques reinvented film as a medium and the innovations of Godard, Truffaut, Varda, and others transformed film into an artform that was capable of investigating culture and its impact on identity in a new, more expressive way. The films themselves are mirrors reflecting back narcissism, disfunction, and the reduction of human nature. The French New Wave popularized the concept of film as art: a medium with the ability to explore and transform cultural perceptions and the movement itself is self-conscious, experimental, and yearning for depth like its central characters, simultaneously constructing and dissecting its own identity with every jump cut.